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Shot/Chaser: Revisiting Ingmar Bergman's Emotionally Raw Scenes from a Marriage

Cinema 5

Editor's NoteAs part of our Shot/Chaser series, we're following up new release reviews with recommendations for old movie pairings. Carson Cook's review of Marriage Story​ can be found here. Like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage follows a married couple — Johan and Marianne — through the tumultuous turns and thrashes of a marriage in decline.  Scenes from a Marriage provides a uniquely raw look into the psyche of two individuals who have dedicated themselves to each other, exploring and exposing the emotional complexities inherent in a social institution that is supposed to be permanent, fulfilling, and unchanging.  Bergman gives us a vision of marriage that is more true to human nature than what we are led to believe.  Marriage is, as Johan describes it, a “glorious fiasco.”  It is not a fount of love but a maelstrom for the unprepared; a place where you can lose yourself without ever realizing you are lost. ​Although the film is nominally about Johan and Marianne’s relationship, Scenes from a Marriage centers on each character’s individual maturation and emotional development through ten years of their lives (which are broken into six chapters). When we’re first introduced to Johan and Marianne, they’re responding to a question from a magazine reporter asking them to describe themselves.  Johan rattles off a list of his best attributes:  he is “bright, youthful, successful, and sexy,” and is educated, a good friend, a good father, and a good son, and so forth.  He exudes confidence and contentment.  Marianne struggles to come up with an answer.  She eventually responds that she is married to Johan and that she has two daughters. When pressed, she can only think to add that Johan is “very nice” and that they’ve been married for ten years.   As in Marriage Story, the characters grow apart — and together — with space and time. Johan suddenly announces that he has met someone else and that he is leaving immediately for Paris with his new lover.  He won’t be back for months.  During that time, Johan and Marianne themselves begin to change, molding their relationship into something new and different in each act. Marianne’s transformation is a journey of self-discovery and self-awareness.  Liv Ullmann’s graceful and forceful shift from a meek and agreeable wife to a self-assured, confident, emboldened woman is thoroughly convincing.   We come to fully understand the depth of her despair when she announces to a sleeping Johan that she doesn’t know who she is, embracing and acknowledging that she has been living a life of “sheer cowardice.”  We can feel Marianne’s disgust in recognizing her own inclination to meet others’ expectations and desires rather than set her own.  And when Marianne finally breaks herself out of that codependent mindset, becoming something more (and less) than the perfect wife, mother, or daughter, we understand her exultation.   Johan, meanwhile, begins to understand what he is giving up — and what he stands to gain — by upending the status quo.  He embraces his own vulnerability, confessing to Marianne that he feels like a failure.  That he is “scared and rootless.”  And that he was bound to Marianne in a way that he did not understand or appreciate until their marriage was compromised.  While Marianne’s journey is one of elevation, Johan’s transformation grounds him solidly in the reality, forcing him to understand what matters to him.  By the time he admits (to himself and to Marianne) that he just wants to come home and “lead a regular life” with Marianne, their marriage has long passed the point of salvation. The final acts of the film are where Bergman shines.  Scenes from a Marriage brilliantly captures what it means, and how it feels, to unwind a marriage.  The relationship between Johan and Marianne is a puppet of and a slave to the full range of human emotions: anger, frustration, jealousy, pride, empathy, doubt, and sometimes love.  Those emotions come out explosively as they each realize what they have to lose -- or gain -- as their relationship loses its societal formality.  Through a series of intense and raw conversations, Bergman captures the interplay between the complex feelings that come from knowing someone deeply, wanting to be without them, and realizing you have to let them go. 

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